State Sen. Joni Albrecht of Thurston at the Nebraska State Capitol on Jan. 11, 2023, discussing her proposal to restrict abortion in Nebraska to about six weeks of gestation. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)
LINCOLN — A legislative bill that supporters and opponents agree would outlaw abortions in Nebraska before many women know they’re pregnant heads into Wednesday’s first round of debate with just enough votes to overcome cloture — 33 — but no wiggle room.
State Sen. Joni Albrecht of Thurston appears to have held together a coalition of 32 Republicans and one Democrat, State Sen. Mike McDonnell of Omaha, to pass Legislative Bill 626.
The bill would outlaw abortions after an ultrasound detects embryonic cardiac activity. This commonly occurs at about six weeks of gestation, which advocates and opponents acknowledge is before many women will know they’ve missed a menstrual period.
Because of this, abortion rights advocates say Albrecht’s bill is effectively an outright ban.
Albrecht has said she seeks to end what she calls “elective abortion,” or abortion by choice. She has told the Nebraska Examiner that she negotiated exceptions for rape, incest and the life or health of the mother, but she would prefer the total ban the Legislature sought in 2021.
“I’m hoping we can change some hearts on the floor,” Albrecht said Monday. “It’s about elective abortions. We want to stop that from happening — women who it’s inconvenient for them to have it, not wanting to have it. …. This is the right thing to do for the people.”
Changes possible, if unlikely
Opponents of LB 626 say they’re hoping some supporters of the bill, who privately express reservations about it being too extreme, will drop their support of the bill.
Doctors say legislation could affect patients with pregnancy complications.
The fact that an alternative to LB 626 — a proposed ban after 12 weeks — was introduced shows that even some senators who have signed onto the “heartbeat” bill are listening to their constituents who say it goes too far, said Scout Richters of the ACLU of Nebraska.
“We are asking them, and hoping, that they will take that next step and vote no more restrictions on abortion,” Richters said.
Omaha Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh, a legislative opponent, said that the fiscally responsible course would be for Nebraska lawmakers to wait before considering LB 626 until they see how legal challenges to similar laws in other states play out.
In a “minority statement” on the bill, Cavanaugh and Gretna Sen. Jen Day raised several concerns about LB 626, including that while it does not provide for criminal prosecution of doctors who perform an abortion, it doesn’t repeal other laws that do allow criminal charges.
Likely to pass first round
Senators and outside political observers expect the bill to secure enough votes for first-round passage this week, once it overcomes the eight hours of debate required by a promised filibuster from Cavanaugh and fellow Omaha Sen. Megan Hunt.
But people on all sides of the abortion debate will be watching what happens in the second round of debate. That’s when State Sen. Merv Riepe of Ralston, a former hospital administrator, plans to discuss an amendment he offered that would shift LB 626 to an abortion ban after 12 weeks.
Several conservative senators have told the Examiner in recent weeks that they have seen polling from Nebraska that echoes findings in other states. The polling indicates public support for abortion bans starts peeling off with bans shorter than 12 weeks.
Political observers said they would be watching five Republican senators and one Democrat to see if the 12-week ban has a chance: The Republicans are Christy Armendariz of Omaha, Tom Brandt of Plymouth, Myron Dorn of Adams, Jana Hughes of Seward and Riepe.
Each has committed to support the bill, Albrecht said. But several represent districts where constituents are divided about the proposed cardiac ban.
The Democratic senator is Justin Wayne of Omaha. He has told some colleagues he opposes the bill, but he has not indicated where he stands on voting for cloture. He could be a backup 33rd vote if supporters of the bill fall short. He did not return calls Monday seeking comment.
The path forward
Supporters of the cardiac ban said privately they don’t see a path to approval for the 12-week ban. They think conservatives will hold, several said. But a single senator who wants to change the measure to a 12-week ban could push a change.
Albrecht said Riepe has told her he will support her bill as long as he gets debate on his amendment, which he confirmed Monday. Riepe told the Examiner if his choice is between keeping Nebraska’s current 20-week abortion ban or LB 626, he’d pick LB 626.
The key question during the second round of debate, which can last up to four hours, is whether a filibuster will leave time for any amendments to be heard beyond the ones filed by Hunt and Cavanaugh and other senators who object to a stricter ban.
“If I’m the 33rd vote, I would give her that vote for cloture,” he said. “I simply want to have it be discussed. I’m not working the bill, not vote-counting, not lobbying. If push comes to shove, I don’t like the 20 weeks. I think it’s excessive.”
Andi Curry Grubb of Planned Parenthood said she expects to hear a “very robust debate.” She said she hopes that senators are paying attention to the consequences of abortion bans in other states, including trauma for women seeking care and the loss of doctors to other states.
“We know that there are some senators that have said they will be listening to determine where they land, and we hope that’s true,” Curry Grubb said. “Because I think there’s a lot of information about how harmful these types of bills are.”
Sandy Danek of Nebraska Right to Life said she expects each of the senators who have signed on to support the bill and some who have chosen not to advocate for the bill publicly to honor their word and stick to their answers to the anti-abortion group’s candidate surveys.
“I’m very encouraged and very impressed with the senators who support this bill,” Danek said. “I think we feel confident that the pro-life senators who have signed onto the bill will remain with us. … We feel very good about our commitments.”
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